Since entering the Bundestag for the first time in 1983, the Green party have remained a minor force, only once gathering enough votes to make it into double figures.
In some ways this outsider status has made things easy. The Greens have traditionally struggled with the contradiction between their anti-authoritarian principles and being part of a system of power. For decades, Fundis (
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In the past few years though, that has changed. At the state level they are now involved in 11 governments, mixing and matching with Social Democrats, Free Democrats and even Christian Democrats.
Since 2018 they have been led by a duo from the so-called realo wing – moderates who favour coalition building and compromise over finger wagging and moralism.
Now polling just a few points behind the CDU – and clearly ahead of the Social Democrats – they need to make the ultimate statement of intent – naming the person they want to lead the country.
Co-leaders Robert Habeck and Annalena Baerbock will decide between themselves who will run – something the Greens once would have called the Hinterzimmerpolitik (back room policy) of the traditional parties.
But the leading duo are only distant relatives of the 1,004 delegates who set up the party on a cold January day in 1980 on a programme of anti-capitalism and pacifism.
Annalena Baerbock and Robert Habeck in March 2021. Photo: DPA
Baerbock, who wasn’t yet born when the Greens wrote their first programme, recently said that she wasn’t opposed to drone warfare as long as the legal framework was sound. Habeck says he supports globalization, just not the type we have right now.
A picture of marital bliss
In contrast to the naked power struggle currently being played out at the top of the conservative CDU/CSU though, the Green leadership do a good job of portraying themselves as disinterested in personal gain.
Habeck told an interviewer last month that “the stronger decision is sometimes the one that means you open the door for someone else”, while he likes to love-bomb his co-leader on Instagram.
Baerbock has conceded that it would be “a little prick to the heart” if she didn’t run, but has never said anything that even the most suspicious journalist could interpret as a veiled barb at Habeck.
The two famously share a desk at the party HQ and have the same office manager who divides up all official engagements between them on an exact 50/50 basis.
This picture of marital bliss makes it almost impossible to tell which of the two will be announced on April 19th as Chancellor candidate.
The soft soul
Just a year ago, almost no one doubted that Habeck was the natural choice.
An author of several books of philosophy and poetry, the 51-year-old is viewed by fans as a modern day Marcus Aurelius – a self-reflective philosopher king who would rule with justice and vision by day, while ruminating on his own weakness by night.
Habeck “goes further than Hannah Arendt” in his commitment to a philosophy of dialogue and “has a special ability to think through the possible effects and side effects of political decisions,” wrote Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a veteran Green politician, in an article in Die Zeit this week that called for the male co-leader to take a crack at the Chancellery.
A recent opinion piece in der Spiegel came to a similar conclusion. “Habeck has turned self-doubt into his political engine. Trying to run the state in this fundamentally different way would both challenge and enrich the machinery of power,” wrote columnist Susanne Beyer.
Watch any interview with Habeck and it is clear that the Greens have something of a gem in modern politics: a man who thinks while he talks and doesn’t just rattle off pre-prepared sound bites.
But is a man consumed by “what if?” questions really suitable for the top job in Germany politics, especially at a time of crisis?
Critics suspect that Habeck can flatter to deceive. According to this reading he is a high end Boris Johnson: ultimately a vain man who hides his lack of attention to detail behind lofty and obscure language.
Indeed, Habeck’s self-professed humility jars somewhat with his well documented love of a photo shoot. He has found his natural home on Instagram, a social media platform that allows him to emphasise his natural good looks while avoiding the ruff and tumble of Twitter.
The Lübeck native has a tendency to make unforced errors when trying to score points on policy detail. Recent examples include failing understanding how commuter flat rates work, and misunderstanding the role of the financial regulator.
For his backers, this isn’t a problem. After years of technocratic Merkelism, Germany needs a leader who thinks big rather than gets bogged down in detail, they say.
The political nerd
Baerbock is a different proposition.
She has worked her way up through the party machinery, first acting as a political advisor in Brussels before gaining election to the Bundestag via the list system. A details person, she claims to love the work of thrashing out policy in the party’s internal think tanks.
In interviews, she has a tendency to go very deep into the technical detail of policy choices, while batting away questions she doesn’t feel like answering. Like traditional politicians from the mainstream, she makes a concerted effort to display self-assuredness and calm.
“She’s is the better candidate because she demands more of herself and has a better grasp of the facts,” writes Constanze von Bullion for the Süddeutsche. “She radiates the robust ‘I will’ that Habeck lacks. In an election campaign that will be tough and dirty, her nerve and bite are likely to be more useful than Habeck’s vulnerability.”
But for fans of politicians with a fragile soul, Baerbock’s attributes are too ordinary.
Her “consciousness of power means she isn’t that different to Markus Söder”, sniffs Spiegel columnist Beyer.
One Green party insider told Die Zeit that “with Annalena we will score between 17 and 19 percent, with Robert we could end up with a result anywhere between 14 percent and 24 percent”.
In other words: the choice is between a safe pair of hands and an engaging but unpredictable visionary.
In the end though, the decisive factor could be one that neither of them can do anything about: the fact that Baerbock is a woman.
The Social Democratic candidate is Olaf Scholz; the CDU/CSU are set to campaign behind either Armin Laschet or Markus Söder. There is enormous pressure for the party of women’ rights to run a female candidate, while party statutes suggest that the female candidate should have priority.
Habeck has hinted that, if his co-leader wants to run, he won’t stand in her way. Whether that is all part of his show or a genuine act of humility, we will soon find out.
This article first appeared in Hochhaus – letter from Berlin, a bi-weekly newsletter on German politics